Writing in the Free World

Jonathan Letham, author of the amazing Fortress of Solitude (one of very few novels I’ve read in the past decade), has come up with an interesting mechanism for handling the film rights to his latest book. Rights will go to the filmmaker who presents the best proposal. That person will pay Lethem two percent of the film’s budget, and will allow the rights to the novel to return to the public domain after five years.

It’s an arrangement that strikes a balance between guaranteeing some income for the content creator while simultaneously steering clear of the usual Disney-fied 75-year copyright stranglehold. The work becomes at once a vehicle for profit and a brick in the public conversation. “It’s based on the recognition that all works of art are, in a sense, a collaboration between artists and the culture at large.”

What Lethem is recognizing here is that the copyright debate doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing, that there’s a huge middle ground that can satisfy everyone.

It becomes one of those issues like, “If you don’t favor wiretapping in the U.S., you must be for the terrorists.” What I’m seeking to explore is that incredibly fertile middle ground where people control some rights and gain meaningful benefits from those controls, and yet contribute to a healthy public domain and systematically relinquish, or have relinquished for them, meaningless controls on culture that impoverish the public domain.

Some good riffing on how Led Zeppelin takes an uncopyrighted foundation (the blues), adds to it, and slaps copyright on it. Same for Brian Eno / David Byrne with their audio montage stuff. Taking it farther, if the blues was a patented form, Zep could never have existed. Loved these quotes:

“…participating in culture by making stuff is inherently a gift transaction and a commodity transaction.”

“If you make stuff, it is not yours to command its destiny in the world.”

Licensing models like Lethem’s don’t help for the 99% of artists who never see the light of day. But I like to hope that creative approaches to licensing like this one will become more common as artists acknowledge that what they do both borrows from and adds to the public dialog, and that all media needs to be quotable / reusable.

Music: Maline :: Lay Down

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